View from the choir

I am a Catholic layperson and Secular Franciscan with a sense of humor. After years in the back pew watching, I have moved into the choir. It's nice to see faces instead of the backs of heads. But I still maintain God has a sense of humor - and that we are created in God's image.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Diaconate: Where heresy flourishes unmolested (2)

More on heresy, and back to the diaconate ..

The first signs I saw that something was wrong at Corpus came during the conflict concerning the parish school.

Some members of the staff wanted to take it over and create a peace and justice oriented academy serving the needs of the parishioners - most of whom did not live in the neighborhood – and the progressive community in the diocese.

The school staff, however, viewed the school as a resource to the people of the impoverished inner city neighborhood.

The principal was strong-willed. She rebuffed the parish staff’s suggestions.

The parish formed a committee to study the school and make a recommendation. I was on that committee. We had some interesting debates. It was clear that one staff member was the biggest pusher for the takeover. But after looking over what the school was doing, several of us backed the principal. The committee ended in an impasse, and the school continued as is. The staff member was not happy.

Pressure was kept on the school behind the scenes, however, and eventually the school moved to a new building in another parish.

The whole incident opened my eyes to some of what was going on out of public view. I was troubled.

Many in the parish had the attitude that “we have it right, the rest of the church has it wrong, but they’ll follow us eventually.” We jokingly referred to ourselves at “Corpus Christians.”

Father Callan had an air of absolute, almost fanatical certainty in what he was doing. It was infectious, but it also led to a pushing away of anyone who disagreed with his vision or that of key people in the parish.

The arrogance was palpable.

Some people began to quit. But more came in.

One of the most powerful forces was what The Four Good Lays had joked about as the “Cult of Callan.” People practically worshipped him. Women fell in love with him. People would follow him into hell if he asked.

Including my ex-wife. What was happening in the parish helped to feed into the many problems beneath the surface of our marriage. With me becoming increasingly uneasy and vocal about what was going on in the parish, arguments and tension grew.

There were a lot of factors involved in the breakup of our marriage. But when I look back now, I think one of the pressures she was facing was a choice between commitment to me and our marriage, and commitment to Father Callan and the parish.

The parish won.

But that was in the future.

What I saw in by the late 1980s was a parish that had gotten so big it thought it could do whatever it wanted.

I agreed in principal with many of the beliefs, but not with how the parish went about expressing them.

For example, I believe in the ordination of women. The parish supported this, welcoming female altar servers long before it was officially allowed, and women preachers.

But then the parish held an “investiture” ceremony for a female staff member. She began to assist at the altar wearing clerical garments. She began to hear confessions.

That was too much for me.

There was more of the same in other areas. Lay presiders at liturgies (before the diocese permitted them, and without diocesan training and certification). Openly inviting (during Mass) even non-Christians to receive communion. Inviting gay and lesbian couples to the annual married couples Mass and celebration. Blessing gay unions.

My involvement in the parish decreased as I worked two jobs to support my family. One of the jobs was now as a reporter for the diocesan newspaper, so I had to step back from public roles anyway.

In the midst of all this, my marriage blew up. I turned to Father Callan for help, because he was one of the few people my wife would listen to.

We talked for a long time. He agreed with much of what I was seeing in her. He even agreed that a lot of what she was doing – and the way she was doing it – was wrong.

I asked him to talk to her. Not to tell her to come back, just to point out what he was seeing. I hoped that it might get her to stop and think.

He refused.

His argument was that he didn’t want to lose her as a parishioner.

I was stunned. I felt betrayed.

I remained at the parish even as the process of divorce and annulment wove their ways through the channels. I had the added pain of watching her from afar as she was still actively involved as a leader in the community.

I remarried and continued attending, but it was getting more and more uncomfortable because of what was gong on. I eventually left. I wandered from church to church, searching for a home. But I always had the image of the old Corpus in my mind.

It was as if I had undergone two divorces.

Once I left, things started getting out of hand at Corpus. I was working for the diocesan newspaper, and began to wonder why we were not exposing what was going on, and why the bishop was doing nothing that I could see.

It seemed the only people protesting what was going on at Corpus were the ones on the lunatic fringe of the far right.

I felt deeply conflicted. My journalistic instincts told me that what was going on there was a story – a big story - but I still loved the parish and many of the people involved. I also felt that exposing it might force the diocese to have to respond, making the diocese look bad and jeopardizing my future at the paper.

As a father, I also had to deal with the influence on my children. When they were with their mother, they attended Corpus. I saw its ideas permeating their thinking. I tried to counter it, but I think I only came across as a boring, preaching dad.

I felt frustrated, with nowhere to turn.

Gradually my disillusionment with the parish grew to disillusionment with the diocese. Then the church as a whole.

This situation festered from 1993 to 1999. I eventually resigned from the diocesan paper to return to teaching, in part because of confusion and frustrations about my faith.

Oddly enough, my final award at the paper was a first place from the Catholic Press Association for my coverage (along with a fellow reporter) of the bishop finally taking action in the fall of 1998.

The bishop had finally tried to rein Father Callan in and transfer him, and Father Callan had gone public. The results were massive protests, firings, suspensions, excommunications, and the formation of a schismatic church. Two women have now been ordained there. My ex-wife is pursuing a masters of divinity at a local Protestant seminary, and may eventually become the third.

Even through all this, the diaconate hovered at the back of my mind. I felt called to serve, but without a settled parish and no longer working in a church-related job, I had no outlet. (Plus, as I mentioned in a previous post, I had minimized my involvement liturgically because I felt it important to be in the pews with my children.)

I even considered some evangelical churches that offered me ordination.

And one summer I served as a volunteer hospital chaplain as a “Protestant”, even though I was still attending Catholic churches on Sundays.

What eventually righted my ship was a combination of saying the rosary (!), reading Scott Hahn and G. K. Chesterton, and Mass.

For though I had attended some services at Protestant churches to test them out, I found that nothing offered me as much spiritual nourishment as Mass – even a poorly celebrated one.

And as active socially as other churches are, none that I have encountered offer the social justice orientation the Catholic Church does.

So I’m firmly back in the Church.

And the diaconate seems a logical path to pursue in my faith life.

Even if I ultimately don’t enter the program or get rejected, setting out on the path will provide all sorts of opportunities for spiritual growth.


Blogger Talmida said...

Lee, this is fascinating stuff!

We had a group here present objections to our bishop when he proposed bringing in the permanent diaconate last year. He ignored them, pretty much. You covered most of the objections in your last post -- all except one.

The wives of married deacon-candidates here are required to take part in the formation process (some classes, I believe). The fear in the diocese is that couples will be assigned parishes, the deacon will have the power & the pay (granted, not much!) but that his wife will end up sharing in much of his ministry.

If the wife simply wanted to minister in this way, it would be a great thing, but for the church to insist that she attend classes, and then put her to work with no status, no title and no pay (or pension, or benefits) strikes many as a classic example of economic injustice.

Has this issue been raised at all in your and your wife's situation?


1:50 PM  
Blogger Lee Strong said...

The deacon wives have to take part in a few things, but not in all the training and coursework. They can choose to be involved in the studies if they wish, and many do.

My wife certainly hopes to take part in as much of the education as possible.

In terms of the ministry, if the wives choose not to be directly involved, that's fine. It is not required.

The deacon is assigned to a parish, not his wife.

The majority of deacons here are not paid. They have their regular jobs. I'm a teacher and a radio announcer (part time). I would continue to do those unless at some point I was hired to work in a parish (part time or full time).

In either case, I would be hired, not my wife. In fact, she is not even required to attend a parish where I work.

4:36 PM  
Blogger Talmida said...

Thanks for explaining, Lee. :)

5:21 PM  
Anonymous Patti said...

Hi Lee,

Mike and I went through much the same experience. The tension and fights that membership in the parish caused were tearing our very new marriage apart, so we left. I, personally, felt like I had been sold a bill of goods. Corpus was supposed to be so different, but it was really the wolf in sheeps clothing. Jim was just as authoritarian in his arrogance as many other clerics that I had known. The minute you said one potentilly negative thing to him his eyes would glaze over and it was obvious that he had left the conversation. He was definately the last nail in the Catholocism coffin for me!

9:04 PM  
Blogger Todd said...

Many of us CCC refugees have very interesting tales to tell. The community worked in the first decade (1977-87), so far as I can tell, because of the emphasis on intentional faith. In the 80's, there were many people of various ideologies attracted to the parish. I remember social justice radicals, homeschoolers, liturgy geeks, and not a few old-time Catholics who all managed to put up with one another and come out of it as greater than the sums of the parts.

Lee, your observations fill in a few blanks for me. I remember the discussion arounf the school, too. The pro-takeover crew envisioned recent college grads working for next to nothing "like the old nuns did." They actually said that. I found that to be at odds with basic justice, not to mention disruptive for a student body to get a whole crop of teachers every year or three.

The staff joined the liturgy committee in force in 1987, my last year there. It was at that time the fallout from the inclusive language decisions were coming down. It was parish policy to submit significant decisions like that to the parish for a vote, as we had done in the mid-80's to be involved in the Sanctuary movement. The suggestion was rebuffed, with the explanation that sexism was too important an issue to leave to a vote.


And life and death matters in Central America was not.

I found the institutional hypocrisy disturbing. But since I never had much of a sense of hero-worship, it was a bit easier to see past the leadership foibles. It's not likely I would have stayed past 1988 even if I hadn't finished grad school. Many of us on the liturgy committee grew fed up with our year of frustration. And yes, it operated very much like a clericalist bastion. Too bad most of the clericalists were lay people.

6:25 PM  
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